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Translator's Note: Prophecy



Supervielle was born to French parents in Montevideo in 1884, was orphaned within a year of his birth, sent to school in France, and later served in the French army. He died in 1960. I have been making versions (loose translations) of his poems for a few years. I was strongly drawn to his style of writing, the surface clarity, the gently fantastical or dreamlike, the sense of wonder. I felt a kinship with such aspects of his writing voice. I also found coincidental parallels with his life, his birth "elsewhere," on another continent, his early experience of loss. He seems in some respects our contemporary, with poems of a very personal nature, plus those in which he contemplates war or the environment. Sometimes his various themes unite in a single poem.

So far, several of the poems I've attempted to translate have proved very challenging, particularly taking account of the special music of the French. In "Prophecy" ("Prophtie") compare, for instance, the French chardonneret with the English "goldfinch"—totally different-sounding words, the French more songlike. Often I've needed to add more words in my version, extending the original idea so as to achieve a more fluent musicality. My aim has been to retain the spirit of the French poem, and as many of its meanings or implications as I can, while making a poem that succeeds in English.

"Prophecy" is one of Supervielle's sadder poems, imagining the end of the world, though in this, as in his poems generally, the tone is gentle and ultimately consoling. The original struck me as an important poem, haunting and engaging. I was keen to make a version, but it took three or four years to make a poem that sounded close to Supervielle yet natural, and to retain music without the use of end rhymes. Eventually I substituted the idea of the three girls as ghosts for à l'état de vapeur. When God speaks in the last verse, I made a change to reported speech from the direct speech of the French. In English, this gives a more resonant ending. With these two decisions, the "new" poem became viable.—MA


This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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